Although one of the goals of genealogy is to build a pedigree, it is the stories that bring out the richness of each life. How does one learn their ancestor’s stories? Documentation leaves much to be desired–names, dates, and places mostly. Every once in a while, a gem comes your way and your learn your ancestor’s occupation or some other tidbit. But, most documentation leaves you yearning for more.
You can fill in these gaps by interviewing relatives. You will be surprised at the wealth of information your relatives have. They’ll have stories of their parents, grandparents, and other relatives near and far. Some of these individuals as children sat at the knees of their elders hearing tales of the “old country” and the “olden days”. The tales they heard could make your research a heck of alot easier! For instance, perhaps you didn’t know that your great grandfather came to America as a child (you thought your grandparents were already married) or your grandmother married her sister’s widower (that explains the two sister’s with husbands of the same name!). These facts may fall through the cracks of the traditional paper trail. However, the oral tradition may have captured these details, passing them down from generation to generation, waiting for someone to ask the right questions.
Interviewing relatives also adds character to your genealogy. Sometimes it’s just as fun to research the many leaves as it is the branches. Your Great Great Aunt may not further your pedigree but knowing that one of her babies died because a relative accidentally dropped it helps you know her just a little better. Or, what about the relative who was divorced four times during a period when people supposedly didn’t divorce? How about your grandfather’s cousin who could not marry her significant other because she was Portuguese and he was Filipino–at the time, it was forbidden by law. Now you’ve learned something about who they really were, their lives, their struggles, and their dreams. The pedigree is an end result but the stories help you make a connection to your people on a personal level.
When looking for people to interview, don’t stop at immediate relatives! You’ll be pleased at how well the person who connects to you only through a distant marriage remembers your grandparents because they used to live next door to each other. And, here’s something I’ve learned: The farther away from the tree you go, the more willing people are to talk. It’s easier to tell the tales of your second cousin than it is your children. Also, these people are valuable as they may lend a fresh perspective to a story that has have been repeated too many times by the same people.
‘There is a wealth of information out there for the asking. Many older relatives would be so happy if someone were to ask about their childhood and their memories. Once they die, all that information goes with them–never to be recovered.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com